The Eleven-Day Presidency: Panama 1968

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 11:40 AM
Columbia Hall 3 (Washington Hilton)
William Francis Robinson, Vanderbilt University
The 1968 election proved to be a watershed event in Panamanian history. Arnulfo Arias Madrid, his nation’s most successful vote-getter and a lightning rod figure who had already been ousted from the presidency on two previous occasions, forged a coalition called the National Unification Front that changed the traditional configuration of politics. Its subsequent victory unleashed forces that led to twenty-one years of military rule.

In May 1968 Arnulfo’s political alliance rolled to victory by a substantial margin over the Liberal party candidate. What remained to be seen was whether the National Guard would recognize Arnulfo’s claim to the presidency. After the election, Arnulfo Arias and the commander of the National Guard reached an uneasy understanding: the armed forces would accept the election results if Arnulfo and his followers took no reprisals against the military and respected the military hierarchy. The shaky truce encountered problems from the beginning, and when President Arias proceeded to reorganize the military’s chain of command in an effort to secure his hold on power, junior officers spearheaded a coup against him on October 11, 1968. Thus began the military’s two decade seizure of power.

This paper considers the events surrounding the eleven day presidency of Arnulfo Arias. The research, undertaken in Panama and at the United States National Archives, seeks to more closely examine this turbulent period in Panamanian history which culminates in Panama’s first and only military coup.

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